Stamford, CT  — Fire officials say the blaze that destroyed four boats and Capt. John’s Tiki hut in the Stamford harbor Saturday — causing well over $500,000 in damage — stems from a dangerous design problem found in many motorboats.

Just before 3:35 p.m. Chief Fire Marshal Walter Seely said a man in a 24 1/2 -foot 1978 Sea Ray power oat with an inboard engine had just finished fueling at the Hinkley Yachts dock.

While the exact cause for the fire might never be known, Seely said, its general cause goes back as long as gasoline- powered engines have been put into boats, whether they are wood, fiberglass or even metal.
Fire Chief Trevor Roach, who has been on boats since he was a kid and for many years was the captain of the city’s fire boat, said at one time fires in boats powered by gas engines were so common that many yacht designers have since powered vessels with diesel oil, a much less combustible fuel. That, he said, probably more than anything else has kept fires like these to a minimum.
The dangers are so high with inboard engines that are placed within sealed bilges that fans, called blowers, are used to remove gas fumes from below the bottom of the engine where such fumes, being heavier than air, gather. Before an inboard engine is turned on, the captain is supposed to turn on the blower to expel the harmful vapors.
Seely said that the captain of the Sea Ray reported that he used his blower before turning on the engine, which should have expelled the gasoline vapor.

Regardless of what the skipper claims to have done, Seely said there is no doubt that there were gasoline vapors in the bilge and something must have set it off.

“Because of the full extent of the damage, we will probably never know the exact cause of the ignition. We have determined the fire was accidental,” Seely said.

The boat sunk on the east side of the harbor roughly across the harbor from the Crab Shell Restaurant, after setting three other boats on fire and also destroying the popular Tiki hut, which took people on harbor tours powered by an outboard engine.

Seely said a spark from the starter, distributor, sparkplug or even a backfire through the carburetor could have ignited the fumes in the Sea Ray’s engine compartment.

Roach said the wind in the harbor was blowing from the northwest and when the Sea Ray was cast loose, it floated over to the east side of the harbor, where it came into contact with a Boston Whaler that had three outboard engines sitting near the north end of Harbor Point’s transient dock. If the Sea Ray had landed about 40 to 60 feet up harbor, it would have come to rest against some rocks on the side of the harbor and probably would have caused little damage.

But the burning boat set the Tiki hut ablaze along with a third boat, a Larson cabin cruiser, which was also heavily damaged.

Mitch Heffernan, who owns the Carefree Boat Club, housed on the transient dock, said he could hardly believe what he was seeing when the Sea Ray was drifting over to his side of the harbor.

It may have been the blasts from the hoses of the firefighters on land, but the burning Sea Ray began floating out back into the channel. Heffernan remembers seeing two men from the Stamford Yacht Club in a small Boston Whaler toss an anchor into one of the burning boats and pull it into the channel.

Roach said the Sea Ray ended up drifting back to the east side of the channel and caught another boat on fire at the southern end of the transient dock and the Sea Ray and that second boat sank there.

Because the Stamford fire boat was taken out of service on Friday because of a mechanical issue, neighboring communities in Norwalk, Darien and Greenwich sent boats to help battle the blaze. A New York City fire boat in City Island, New York, capable of doing 55 mph on the water, even showed up to help. But Roach said most of the day’s firefighting was done from land-based fire engines and personnel.

Roach estimated the damage caused by the fire to be over $500,000.

Coast Guard Ensign Collin Reichelt, community affairs officer for Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound in New Haven, said the submerged boat that was set on fire and then sunk is now “sheening” which is to say it is leaking gasoline and a plan for its removal is now being worked out.

Capt. John Davis said he was thankful no one got hurt. He said he was on his way to Stamford to take a tour in his Tiki hut when someone called him from the Crab Shell and told him his Tiki was on fire. When he got the call he could see the black smoke from Interstate-95 where he was driving and just calmly parked his car at Harbor Point.

“I knew it was going to be inevitable,” he said, adding that the hut was burned to the waterline. “I’m very grateful for all the firefighters who came out to help and the police and civilians who risked their lives to save our boats. I’m glad we did not have any passengers on the boat or on the dock.”